WATER AND HIGHER BEAUTY
The composition of this piece by Raphael demonstrates the classically-inspired aesthetic of the High Renaissance era. Artists in the first half of the sixteenth century were especially enamored with the contemporary relevance of the classical works from the past, and often sought to incorporate or imitate elements of classical art in their various pieces. Raphael was especially admired for his mastery in the arrangement of his figures, whose overall configuration implies dynamic motion that leads the eye in a fluid circular motion around the frame. Although the groupings of figures are free from each other, they exist in dynamic harmony within the fresco.
Through use of the classical aesthetic of idealized, muscular figures in an active scenario, Raphael’s fresco implies constant movement throughout the entire composition. The motion, however, does not cross over into becoming restless or uneven. The dynamic, swirling movement is anchored in the titular figure of Galatea, who proudly and spiritedly drives a team of dolphins through the sea. The daughter of Poseidon, Galatea was herself a water spirit. Although promised to the Cyclops Polyphemus, Galatea spurned him, choosing to love a mortal instead. This mortal, Acis, was crushed by Polyphemus with a boulder after the Cyclops discovered that he had won the heart of Galatea. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Galatea then turned the blood of Acis into a river in Sicily that bears his name (Volpe).
Raphael does not dwell on the mythical narrative of Galatea, however. Instead the fresco focuses on the moment of the nymph’s apotheosis (transformation into one who shall dwell among the gods as a reward for patient suffering). Galatea is further idealized by being depicted as supremely beautiful, causing the other impressive figures in the piece to pale in comparison to her physique and lovely face. Although many artists used models, Vasari, an insider who documented the lives of many Renaissance artists for posterity, argues that Raphael deliberately used no model, choosing instead to represent no specific woman but only “Beauty herself” (Volpe). In his depiction of Galatea, Raphael deliberately conveys an imagined type of beauty. The resulting nymph herself is full of vitality and sincerity in her natural loveliness. She is, as art historian E.H. Gombrich suggests, “an inmate of a brighter world of love and beauty” (Artchive).
Galatea’s role in the painting is complex on multiple levels. Compositionally, all the lines in the picture (from the love-gods’ arrows to the reins in her hands) converge on her beautiful face in the center. The motion of her sea chariot drives the eye from left to right, but the churning motion of the centaurs and the love-gods adds a strong circular element to the movement of the fresco. Galatea turns her gaze upwards and behind her while smiling mysteriously, seemingly oblivious to the carnal antics of the centaurs churning the sea around her chariot. Her figure is the only substantial link between the agitated sea and the calm sky, implying Galatea’s break from the base carnality around her—symbolized by the sea environment—and her ascension into higher virtues—symbolized by the idealized sky scene above. Here Galatea fully represents the classical world as it appeared to its admirers in the High Renaissance in her beautiful physique and the narrative of the fresco, symbolizing the highest ideal form of beauty and its elevation from baser elements.
The Nymph Galatea. Photograph. Artchive. Web. 5 Apr 2012.
Volpe, Christopher. “Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea, 1512.” Christopher Volpe’s Art Blog. 23 Aug 2010. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. <http://christophervolpe.blogspot.it/2010/08/raphael-triumph-of-galatea-1512.html>.